"There's a dead bird. It's dead."
Oh, such clever, witty dialogue. Supposedly "The St. Francisville Experiment" is real. It's clearly not, and I'll do a somewhat awful job of explaining why in a minute. First, though, I'd like to mention that I've spent more of my life reading "Fangoria" than not, and one of my quibbles with Fango over the past few years is the magazine's tendency to overhype movies before their release, bestowing upon them such glowing tagline-worthy descriptions as "the future of horror!" and "sure to be one of the year's best!", only to harshly criticize the film when it actually hits theaters. I was floored when in the first time in recent memory, Fango actually said something less-than-positive about a movie before its release. For a short time, that $7 a month didn't seem like such a waste of money. That movie has made its way to my doorstep, and although I tried to go in with an open mind and positive attitude, "The St. Francisville Experiment" may very well be the worst movie of the 112 discs I've reviewed for DVD Talk over the past year.
Early on, we meet a psychic with abilities that don't even seem to match those of Cleo Da Jamaican Tarot Card Readah, a first time ghost-hunter, a wannabe filmmaker with a constant Tom Cruise smirk, and a ditzy historian named Ryan. Ryan, incidentally, is female and presumably intended to be the eye-candy of the movie. Not very convincing as a historian, I kept picturing Ryan in a dorm room with some of her sorority sisters, her head slightly cocked, squealing "Omigosh you guys, soooooo much cool stuff happened in history! And this one guy, in the 1800's or whatever, was totally cute." So anyway, this crazy group volunteers to enter a supposedly haunted house, stay there till dawn, and perform some cleansing ritual. Oh yeah, and you know all the characteristics and abilities that close to 90 seconds are spent discussing early on? They never come into play. Not once. I suppose you could consider Madison's power to see and hear things no one else does related to her purported psychic gifts, but I'd like to think she simply craved attention desperately. None of the characters are likeable or even developed to any extent, and if you thought the stars of "Blair Witch" grated on your nerves...oh boy. The director appears early on to describe the scenario, harping on about how this experiment is the real deal. When a movie like this says "it's real! Promise!", you can expect one of two things:
1) It's fake. If anything interesting actually happened here, it'd confirm that there's life after death...and if that were the case, I'd imagine that this humble little experiment would probably make the news.
2) It's boring. If nothing happens, there's not going to be much to show, right?
In the case of "The St. Francisville Project", it's both, but I can't get over how horridly fake this is. Many of the shots are too 'perfect', especially during the dinner scene where Ryan discovers a (gasp!) nasty surprise in her sandwich. I could write at length why those shots of Ryan feasting bugged me (ooh, you'll see how witty that barb was if, God forbid, you see this movie), but really, why would someone carefully place a camera to record herself eating? The frenzied camera movement in "Blair Witch" is entirely absent, too much "paranormal" activity occurs on-camera, the 'expert' introduced early on makes bizarre suggestions like sprinkling flour on the floor to capture ghost footprints (if forensic evidence of ghosts is so easy to obtain, wouldn't there be definitive proof of their existence?), and different parts of the film -- especially the parts in the 'home base' -- seemed to be recorded all at once and placed throughout the film by the magic of non-linear digital editing. I did an awful job explaining that last piece, but...well, I'll pretend you get what I mean and move on. Anyway, there's nothing wrong with something being fake...after all, isn't that what cinema's largely about? Being boring, however, is an entirely different story. First of all, no one dies. No one's even seriously injured. Okay, admittedly that's a pretty big spoiler, but I'm assuming by now you've picked up that I'm not going to recommend seeing this movie anyway. Following that, of course, is a near complete lack of blood, no gore, no on-screen violence, no nudity, no sex, and just enough profanity to give this a PG-13 rating. Seriously, if not for the small dollop of profanity, it'd probably be considered a "hard PG".
"The Blair Witch Project" did a great job, at least I thought, of setting up the premise through conversations recorded on video and footage shot for the documentary-within-a-mockumentary. It had a nice flow to it, but "The St. Francisville Experiment" spends too much time with interviews without the same sense of progression that "Blair Witch" had. A fifth of the movie is over by the time the group finally enters the house, though it seems like it takes closer to half an hour. And when they finally get in there? For one, awful jump scares (well, theoretically jump-inducing), including the most cliched jump-scare in the history of cinema. The acting is sub-porn, particularly from the overdramatic Madison and hyperemotional Ryan, who uses the phrase 'you guys' even more than Christina Aguilera. Astonishingly, Ryan actually is a professional actress and is the chair of the Beverly Hills chapter of "Women In Film". Note to women: get a better representative. One special effect appears three times. Seriously. First, it happens, then three of the participants watch the replay, and finally, they invite another guy over to watch it again. This is all within the space of a minute or two. Still, the worst aspect overall? A complete and total lack of tension and suspense. Nothing even approximating anything interesting happens until 74 minutes in (bear in mind that the running time is right at 77 minutes), and the payoff that finally seems to come turns out to be pretty weak overall. The sole element of "The St. Francisville Experiment" that I can genuinely call surprising was that the cover was inserted upside-down, so when I opened the case, the disc was on the left rather than the right. (wiggles fingers menacingly) Until last week, I hadn't given the perhaps-oft-dreaded "Skip it" to a movie in four and a half months -- and I've reviewed a mildly impressive 57 discs since then -- but, oh, this is what that option in the drop-down tab on the review submission form was coded for. (For the curious, only 9% of the discs I've ever reviewed have gotten this rating.)
Video: Much like its obvious inspiration, "The St. Francisville Experiment" was shot on video, but the equipment's of a little higher quality than what Dan Myrick and Ed Sanchez picked up at Circuit City. I guess the movie looks as good as it can, considering the poor lighting, low-grade equipment, and complete lack of professional camerawork; better than a hastily-recorded home movie, but not by much.
Audio: Artisan gave "Blair Witch" a rather pricey audio overhaul, but Trimark didn't go to quite that same expense. Audio levels are inconsistent from scene to scene, although I guess it could be said that this is all part of the cinema verite illusion. Whatever. Having to frequently adjust the audio level was a constant irritant. Occassionally, background noise is so heavy -- particularly right before the group enters the mansion -- that dialogue is extremely difficult to discern. To that end, Trimark has graciously provided English, Spanish, and French subtitles to help out there. Watch it in Spanish and count the number of times you see "Amo todos los fantasmas!" flash across the screen.
Supplements: Trimark always loads on the trailers, and along with a letterboxed trailer for "The St. Francisville Project" are full-frame trailers for "Storm of the Century", "Crocodile", and "Octopus". Maybe it's worth mentioning that "Crocodile" and "Octopus" were on my 'to-buy' list before going through this disc, but in the middle of the "Octopus" preview, I removed both as quickly as I possibly could. Also included are very brief interviews with the participants...or...uh...cast, or whatever they want to be called. Considering that the movie really isn't very good, the "How To..." guide probably won't be too useful to budding filmmakers hoping to make a quick buck. Maybe if some of those rules had been dropped, particularly the 'no drugs' and 'no weapons' bits, "The St. Francisville Experiment" would've been just a touch more interesting. Oh, and is "get four or more people..." really a rule? Anyway, an equipment list, which makes mention of such useful items as "ghost hunting devices", and a "Road Rules"-style list of missions round out the guide. I was a little disappointed at the lack of a commentary track, especially considering that's the feature that made Artisan's DVD of "The Blair Witch Project" so much fun to watch repeatedly. On the other hand, no commentary means I only had to sit through this once, and for that, I'm grateful.
Conclusion: Oh, uh, skip it.